CHARLIE VAUGHN: A victim of a cruel legal system is still awaiting justice. Arkansas Division of Correction

Editor’s note: Radley Balko worked for years as an investigative reporter and opinion writer for The Washington Post, where he took on the Little Rock Police Department’s misuse of no-knock warrants in drug raids. His work inspired policy changes. Balko recently started The Watch on Substack, a subscription-based email newsletter. The following is a condensed version of his first investigation. Subscribe at

In the summer of 1995, an envelope arrived at the federal courthouse in Little Rock. Inside was a handwritten, barely coherent plea from Charlie Vaughn, a man serving a life sentence for murder in the Tucker Maximum Security Unit.


Vaughn can’t read or write, so he presumably asked another prisoner to draw up the document for him. It was a one-page bid for his freedom. “Amendment five is a constitutional right which was violated kidnap railroaded false imprisonment, [sic],” it read. “I would like to be released from custody.”

In 1991, Vaughn had confessed and pleaded guilty to the murder of 81-year-old Myrtle Holmes. In doing so, he implicated three other people. They were convicted after two trials and, like Vaughn, sentenced to life in prison.


In a form for indigent prisoners attached to his letter, Vaughn checked off that he had been falsely arrested, had received inadequate legal representation, and was wrongly convicted. He was right about all three. But without a lawyer, Vaughn provided no documentation for his claims. He couldn’t cite a trial transcript, evidentiary record or case law. He made no legal arguments. 

Not surprisingly, the federal district court dismissed his petition with a short, little-noticed order, similar to thousands of other orders dismissing thousands of other petitions self-filed by prisoners every year.


A quarter-century later in 2015, faced with the possibility of more advanced DNA testing that could definitively implicate him, one of the other three people convicted for the crime confessed. In his confession, he insisted that not only did he commit the crime alone, he barely knew Vaughn or the other two people who had been convicted. 

DNA did not implicate Vaughn or the others. In fact there was no physical evidence linking Vaughn to the crime.

The confession and other new evidence would eventually free the other two people wrongly convicted for the murder. But not Charlie Vaughn. Despite strong evidence that his confession was coerced, and despite the fact that even the family of the victim wants him released, Vaughn remains in prison.

Arkansas provides no real way for prisoners like Vaughn to get back into state court, even when they have persuasive evidence of their innocence. This ought to be where the federal courts would intervene. But because of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a law signed five years after Vaughn’s 1991 conviction, the federal courts won’t even consider the evidence of his innocence. AEDPA gives prisoners like Vaughn one shot at federal review. The two other defendants never took their shot. Vaughn took his with that handwritten letter in 1995. So now he’s out of luck.


IN PRISON ON A TECHNICALITY: The 1995 handwritten “appeal” that has kept Charlie Vaughn in prison.

AEDPA is a sprawling, bewilderingly complex law passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. One section of the law has proven particularly consequential — a provision restricting when prisoners can ask federal courts to review their cases. This section is also especially complicated and confusing, and subsequent Supreme Court rulings have only made it harder to comprehend.

When it was passed, AEDPA’s proponents made no secret of their intent. They claimed prisoners and unscrupulous defense attorneys were flooding the federal courts with frivolous appeals. They wanted to dam the system, slowing federal review of cases like Vaughn’s to a trickle.

But AEDPA’s culling process has little to do with the actual merits of prisoners’ claims. Instead, AEDPA winnows them down by imposing a dizzying array of procedures, deadlines and rules. Failure to follow any of them typically results in what’s called “procedural default” — a dismissal before giving any consideration at all to the prisoner’s actual claims. And as Vaughn did, the overwhelming majority face these hurdles without a lawyer.

For those prisoners fortunate enough to avoid procedural default, AEDPA still requires federal courts to show extraordinary deference to state court rulings. It isn’t enough for a federal judge to believe a state court is wrong on the law or facts of a case. The federal judge must find the state court was so wrong that “no reasonable jurist” would agree with the outcome. To overturn a state court ruling on a constitutional matter, then, AEDPA requires a federal court to deem state judges and justices all but unfit for the bench.

The federal court system is littered with cases attesting to AEDPA’s arbitrary cruelty. But Vaughn’s case is among the cruelest. “I’ve spent a good deal of my own money investigating my great-aunt’s murder,” says Michelle Tull, Myrtle Holmes’ grand-niece. Tull now represents the family’s interests in legal matters pertaining to her great-aunt’s murder. “We don’t believe Charlie should be in prison. I’ve seen no evidence to convince me he’s guilty. He needs help and mental health care.”


When Holmes was murdered in September 1988, the savagery of the crime shook the small town of Fordyce. Holmes had been bound, raped, severely beaten and repeatedly stabbed with knives from her own kitchen. Her killer then slashed Holmes’ throat and stuffed her body into the trunk of her car.

After more than a year passed without an arrest, Holmes’ family hired a retired police officer to investigate. They offered him $5,000 to solve the murder. 

The investigator was a Fordyce native, and he came to the case with a network of informants. As is often the case with informants, some had criminal records, some were addicted to drugs or alcohol, and some were facing their own charges at the time. One informant eventually directed the investigator’s attention to Vaughn, a high school dropout known in the community to have an intellectual disability and to suffer from mental illness.

It isn’t clear why the informant singled Vaughn out, but records show that Vaughn had recently been arrested and charged with making “terroristic threats.” Court documents don’t specify the nature of those threats, but Stuart Chanen, who has represented Vaughn since 2016, suspects it was related to a mental health episode. “My sense is that Charlie was seen as different, maybe a little off,” he says. “That’s probably how he became a suspect.” 

By the end of 1988, the police had interrogated Vaughn at least four times. Each time he told them he knew nothing of the murder. Yet in March 1990 Vaughn and two other men — Reginald Early and John Brown —  were charged with robbing, raping and murdering Myrtle Holmes. 

According to court records, the only evidence against Vaughn at that time came from informants and sources working with the private investigator. Some claimed to have seen the three men together around the time of the murder. Others claimed to have overheard them discussing the crime. But no one saw them going in or out of Holmes’ house.

For the next 10 months, Vaughn continued to insist on his innocence. Because he was indigent and Dallas County had no full-time public defender, a judge assigned Vaughn’s case to Edward Oglesby, an attorney in private practice. Oglesby had been out of law school for a little more than a year.

“I’ll be the first to say I wasn’t ready for a case like that,” Oglesby says. “But back then, if you were assigned an indigent case, you were expected to accept it unless you had a valid reason to withdraw. And lack of experience wasn’t considered a valid reason.”

After just a few conversations with Vaughn, Oglesby had doubts about his new client’s guilt. “I just didn’t think Charlie was capable of a crime like that,” he says. “At worst, I thought he might have been manipulated or drawn in by someone else.” 

Oglesby also worried that Vaughn lacked the intellectual capacity to assist in his own defense. In January 1991, after nearly 10 months in jail and at Oglesby’s direction, Vaughn changed his plea from not guilty to “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.” The following month, Olgesby persuaded a state judge to order a 30-day mental health evaluation. 

It isn’t clear if that evaluation ever happened, or if it did, how thorough it was. The judge never held a hearing on Vaughn’s competency, as was required by state law.

Instead, local law enforcement set out to extract a confession from Vaughn. On March 24, 1991, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office sent an informant into Vaughn’s jail cell with a hidden tape recorder. The informant was from out of state, had never previously met Vaughn, and was told his own felony drug charges would be dropped if he could get Vaughn to confess.

Later the same day, the Dallas County sheriff announced that Vaughn had not only confessed, he had given police a detailed description of how he, Brown and Early robbed, raped and murdered Myrtle Holmes. Vaughn also allegedly told investigators that a woman named Tina Jimerson drove the men to and from the crime. Vaughn would later say the informant had tricked him, telling him his innocence didn’t matter — that he’d get the death penalty unless he confessed. The recording of Vaughn’s alleged confession was never handed over to his defense, and police and prosecutors never disclosed the role of the informant in extracting the confession.

Oglesby was eventually forced to withdraw from Vaughn’s case, in part because of a pre-planned move to Little Rock. Vaughn’s new attorney had barely spoken to him before the court hearing to address the alleged confession. Vaughn would later say he told his new attorney he was innocent and wanted a jury trial. Instead, according to Vaughn, the new attorney too told him his only hope of avoiding the death penalty was to plead guilty and implicate the others. Vaughn’s second attorney is now deceased.

It’s perhaps understandable why a lawyer might have encouraged Vaughn to plead guilty. Vaughn stood accused of a horrific crime that had traumatized the community. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen him with the other suspects around the time of the murder. And the sheriff had just announced that Vaughn confessed. 

A conviction might well have seemed like a foregone conclusion, and avoiding the death penalty the best possible outcome. And so on March 25, 1991, on the advice of his new lawyer, Vaughn confessed in open court. During a short colloquy with the judge, Vaughn said he, Brown and Early had robbed, raped and murdered Holmes, and that Jimerson had driven them to and from the crime.

The judge convicted Vaughn and sentenced him to life in prison. 


Vaughn’s alleged confession should have been suspect from the start. At his colloquy he seemed confused and appeared to be taking cues from the judge. The confession was also short-lived. Vaughn confessed in March 1991 and retracted his confession the following year. He has maintained his innocence ever since.

The confession also included several assertions inconsistent with what investigators knew about the crime, including a glaring one — Vaughn implicated himself in a rape he couldn’t have committed.

In the late 1980s, DNA testing couldn’t match blood or sperm to one person as it can today. But it could exclude someone as the source of biological evidence. And in 1989, more than a year before Vaughn confessed, DNA testing had already excluded both Vaughn and Brown as the source of the sperm found in Holmes. Reginald Early could not be excluded. Despite Vaughn’s confession, it’s highly unlikely either he or Brown raped Holmes.

The Arkansas attorney general’s office has brushed off this contradiction and pointed to other details provided by Vaughn, details supposedly known only to police at the time. But given that the police concealed the existence of the informant, their credibility here is suspect. Even if the claim is accurate, without the recordings of Vaughn’s alleged initial confession, it’s impossible to know whether investigators may have conveyed those details to the informant, or if the informant conveyed them to Vaughn. (The AG’s office did not respond to questions for this story.)

Vaughn also got other details wrong. He misstated how the killer entered the house, how Holmes was killed (he wrongly said she’d been struck with a pipe and skillet), and even where she lived. And while the state has alleged that Vaughn and Early were longtime friends, in his colloquy Vaughn formally referred to Early as “Reginald.” At trial and in depositions, those who knew Early well called him “Reggie.” He was only known as Reginald in court documents.

“I think that’s significant,” says Jeff Kukucka, a psychology professor at Towson University who studies false confessions. “When assessing the reliability of a confession, you look for those kinds of discrepancies. Why would he have used Reginald? The most likely explanation is that’s the name that was given to him by the informant or by police.”

According to data from the Innocence Project, about one in four convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing involved a false confession. Academic research also shows that people with intellectual disabilities are among the most likely to falsely implicate themselves.

“This case sets off every red flag and then some,” says Saul Kassin, a psychologist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied false confessions since the 1980s. “You have an intellectually disabled man, you have a year of incarceration, you have the threat of the death penalty, and you have him confessing to a rape that he couldn’t have committed. You have a jailhouse informant pressuring him. These are all classic characteristics common in false confessions.” 

Kukucka agrees. “This is a poster case for false confessions,” he says.

In fact, Kassin has found that innocent suspects subjected to coercive interrogations are actually more likely to confess than the guilty. An innocent person worn down by an extended stay in jail or intense questioning will confess just to end the discomfort of the moment. Because they know they’re innocent, they’re confident the evidence will eventually clear them.

“It’s one of the most paradoxical and counterintuitive things about false confessions,” Kassin says. “They believe in justice and they believe in the system, so they think their innocence will shine through, that it will overcome the confession. The tragic thing is that it’s often the opposite — the confession is often the only evidence left that keeps them incarcerated.”

Kassin and Kukucka both say Vaughn’s second attorney should have factored Vaughn’s disabilities into his legal defense. “Even back then, there was plenty of research showing that disabled and mentally ill people were vulnerable to false confessions,” Kassin says.

In 1992, a year after Vaughn’s confession, Brown, Early and Jimerson were all tried together for Holmes’ murder. The jury deadlocked 6-6, resulting in a mistrial.

The three were tried again in August 1992. By then Vaughn had retracted his confession and declared his innocence. He refused to cooperate at the second trial, insisting his attorney had “put all them words in my mouth” to help him avoid the death penalty. He said he barely knew Brown or Early and that he knew nothing about the crime.

But John Brown’s attorney inexplicably failed to introduce the DNA tests that undermined Vaughn’s confession (the attorney would later be convicted of various felonies and permanently disbarred). The jury convicted, and the judge sentenced Brown, Early and Jimerson to life in prison.


After a defendant is convicted, the case moves to a phase called “direct appeal.” Here the courts are required to consider constitutional violations or an unfair trial.

Once a prisoner loses a direct appeal, the case moves into “post-conviction.” At this stage, a petitioner can bring claims based on evidence outside the trial record. This is when prisoners are most likely to discover the most consequential problems with the state’s case, like prosecutorial misconduct, undisclosed alternate suspects or exculpatory evidence that was never disclosed.

But there’s a catch. Once a case enters post-conviction, it also becomes much more difficult to get a court to consider any new evidence. In many states, post-conviction procedures are loaded with restrictions and deadlines, and courts and legislatures have made it clear that the law should prioritize the “finality” of jury verdicts.

At the time Vaughn was convicted, a prisoner who exhausted his state post-conviction claims would then turn to a federal judge.

AEDPA, passed in 1996, changed all of that. AEDPA requires prisoners to exhaust all their constitutional claims in state court before they can ask for federal review. If they fail to successfully navigate the gauntlet of state procedures and deadlines correctly, they lose by procedural default, at which point AEDPA all but bars them from federal court.

At the time Charlie Vaughn was convicted, few states showed less interest in protecting the rights of the accused than Arkansas. One study published four years before Myrtle Holmes’ murder ranked Arkansas dead last among all states in public defense spending per capita.

“We got $200 per felony to represent an indigent client — $350 if it was a potential death penalty case,” says Oglesby. “But you only got paid when the case was closed. It didn’t matter if it took two weeks or if it took a year.”

That created some perverse incentives. If a client pleaded guilty an hour after the attorney was assigned the case, the attorney got $350 for an hour’s worth of work. If the client went to trial, the attorney could be looking at months, or possibly years of work for the same $350, payable only once it was all over. Persuading clients to plead guilty and ask for lenience was far more lucrative.

Attorneys assigned to indigent cases could spend no more than $100 per case on an investigator. The state cap on all expenses — copies, mileage, experts, investigators, office supplies, everything — was just $1,000. Recent studies have put the cost of a bare-bones death penalty defense at $120,000 to $500,000 — or $60,000 to $250,000 in 1989 dollars. Post-conviction attorneys say a thorough death penalty defense can run significantly higher, $600,000 to $1 million or more.

None of the four people convicted for Myrtle Holmes’ murder received the death penalty, but that blessing came with a curse: In most death penalty states, including Arkansas, only people sentenced to die are provided with a public defender once their cases enter post-conviction. Unless they’re fortunate enough to find someone who will take their case for free, everyone else must negotiate the post-conviction minefield on their own.

If you’ve been sentenced to anything less than death in Arkansas, you have 90 days at most to learn enough state law to understand post-conviction procedures, obtain and review a trial transcript, find experts willing to review the state’s experts for free, and send friends and family out to find witnesses and investigate alternate suspects.

According to Arkansas defense attorneys I’ve interviewed, it can take a month or more just to obtain a trial transcript. They also say prisoners typically aren’t aware of these deadlines. “In all my years practicing in this state, I can think of one, maybe two judges who ever bothered to give a defendant notice about the deadlines,” says John Wesley Hall, a criminal defense attorney who has practiced in Arkansas for nearly 50 years. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard inmates say they didn’t know how or when they were supposed to file.”


In 2015, when faced with the possible results of more sophisticated DNA testing, Reginald Early confessed. Early said he started drinking early on that late summer morning, then began wandering around his old neighborhood. When he passed by Holmes’ house, he said, he flashed back to an incident years earlier in which Holmes had called the police on him as he attempted to rob her. In his drunken state he grew angry, then flew into a rage. He entered her home, robbed, raped and killed her, and then stuffed her body into the trunk of her car. Unlike Vaughn’s confession, Early’s description of the crime was wholly consistent with the evidence.

Early also stated unequivocally that he acted alone. He said he barely knew Brown, Jimerson or Vaughn. He then added a chilling detail: He had actually considered confessing shortly after his arrest. He changed his mind when he learned that people he barely knew — and knew were innocent — had been charged as well. At that point, he said, he assumed the police and prosecutors didn’t know what they were doing. So he decided to take his chances at trial.

At about the same time, Tricia Rojo Bushnell and the Midwest Innocence Project took up John Brown’s case. That legal team also re-interviewed the eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the four suspects together or heard them discussing the murder. Nearly all of the witnesses were police informants or owed favors to the private investigator hired by Holmes’ family. Some were battling drug or alcohol addiction. One had schizophrenia and couldn’t remember testifying. Another potential witness, who was 14 at the time, said the police threatened to send him to juvenile hall unless he fabricated incriminating information about one of the four suspects. He refused. Decades later, he’d learn police falsely claimed he had implicated the man, anyway.

Early’s confession was powerful proof of Brown, Jimerson and Vaughn’s innocence. But it wasn’t enough to exonerate them. Federal courts have ruled that even when witnesses recant or someone else confesses, a defendant must show that prosecutors knew the original confession or witness statements were false and failed to disclose it. Since there’s no evidence police and prosecutors knew Early was lying about his innocence or encouraged him to do so, his confession alone wasn’t enough.

In court filings, the Arkansas attorney general’s office acknowledged there was no way for Brown or Jimerson to get back into state court with any of their new exculpatory evidence — not the confession, not the recantations that had eventually been collected from eyewitnesses, not new doubts about the reliability of the  informant. Yet in keeping with AEDPA’s hall-of-mirrors jurisprudence, when a state provides no avenue for a prisoner to adjudicate innocence claims, it’s the prisoner who is punished — the law considers the prisoner to have defaulted on the nonadjudicable claims. And again, once a prisoner has defaulted in state court, AEDPA treats any subsequent filings in federal court with more hostility.

In the end, even with their bounty of new evidence, John Brown and Tina Jimerson did clear AEDPA’s restrictions, but only barely. The two federal magistrates who first reviewed their respective cases both recommended against overturning their convictions. In both cases, a federal district judge would later disregard the magistrate’s recommendations with a long, analytical opinion explaining why even under AEDPA, the two had produced enough evidence to overturn their convictions.

FORMER PROSECUTOR: Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne served as prosecutor in Vaughn’s trial.

The two judges also separately found that prosecutor Robin Wynne, who went on to become an Arkansas Supreme Court justice, had provided false information to defense attorneys, and had either hidden or destroyed exculpatory evidence or knew about its destruction and failed to disclose it. The courts also found that in failing to disclose the existence of both the jailhouse informant and the now-missing recording of Vaughn’s alleged confession, Wynne had acted in bad faith. (Wynne’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.)

When the Eighth Circuit later upheld those rulings, the state of Arkansas decided not to try Brown and Jimerson again. Both were freed in the fall of 2018 after 26 years in prison.

After their release, both also filed civil rights lawsuits. Jimerson’s case is still in litigation, but Brown will never receive any compensation. Two years after his release he died of congestive heart failure  at age 53.

Myrtle Holmes’ niece, Michelle Tull, said Early’s guilt made sense to her, but she was always unsure about the others charged in her great-aunt’s murder. “I just kept waiting for the state attorney to present evidence that they knew her. That they knew Early. All they had were these — pardon the term — but these crackhead witnesses who couldn’t remember anything. I just kept thinking, where’s the evidence that the others had anything to do with this? Where’s the evidence? It never came.”

Mounting evidence of Vaughn’s false conviction didn’t matter as much as the procedural requirements of AEDPA, and Vaughn’s new attorney failed to convince the Eighth Circuit to allow lower courts to reconsider Vaughn’s case. “By design, AEDPA is complicated and unforgiving,” says David Moran, who runs the innocence clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. “You can be a really smart, well-intentioned lawyer, but if you aren’t an AEDPA specialist, you’re susceptible to making mistakes. And clients pay for those mistakes.” 

Brown, Jimerson and Vaughn were all convicted on the same evidence. All three had to plead their cases to the same appeals court, based on the same evidence. But Vaughn had the added burdens of AEDPA’s ban on successive petitions and a less experienced attorney. Now, only Vaughn remains in prison.

“This is an intellectually disabled man who has been in prison for a very long time‚” Chanen said. “He has compelling evidence of his innocence, and the state committed multiple constitutional violations to convict him. But because of AEDPA, this federal appeals court can reject him with one sentence. They’re under no obligation to explain why. And he has no right to appeal, object or ask them to reconsider.”


Arkansas still provides no recourse in state court for prisoners who find evidence establishing their innocence.

After the federal appeals court overturned Brown and Jimerson’s convictions, the Arkansas attorney general’s office decided not to try them again. At first blush, that at least seems like recognition that the two were wrongly convicted. But the convictions were only overturned because federal judges determined the new evidence was so overwhelming that it cleared even AEDPA’s high bar. Arkansas officials had known about that evidence for years. Rather than drop the charges against Brown and Jimerson, they repeatedly asked federal courts to keep the two incarcerated on technicalities. And they nearly succeeded.

The state’s treatment of Charlie Vaughn has been even worse. The state of Arkansas argued that by not filing within a year of when the first bits of new evidence were discovered, Vaughn had failed to show “due diligence” in establishing his innocence. And because he missed AEDPA’s deadline, he was procedurally barred from benefiting from the exculpatory evidence.

JOHN BROWN: Convicted of the same crimes as Vaughn, was released from prison in 2018.

At the time the new evidence was discovered, Vaughn was in a maximum security prison cell, in another part of the state, with no legal representation. “You’re going to argue that this poor man who is illiterate and has mental health issues should have known what was going on in those other cases, despite no access to the outside world?” Chanen asks. “That he should have been aware of court fillings? Come on. It’s just absurd.”

Last April, Chanen submitted a clemency petition for Vaughn to the state parole board, which screens petitions and makes recommendations to the governor. As part of that petition, in December of 2021 — three decades after Vaughn’s confession — Chanen ordered the mental health evaluation Vaughn never received. Forensic psychologist Bhushan Agharkar concluded that Vaughn is severely intellectually impaired. Of the 1,500 people he has evaluated, Agharkar wrote, Vaughn is “unequivocally one of the lowest functioning individuals I have ever seen.”

He reported that Vaughn had “a debilitating lack of insight, rational weighing, ability to deliberate, and common sense.” Vaughn was “unable to perform simple math, interpret easy proverbs and sayings, or make simple change out of a dollar.” During the exam Agharkar asked Vaughn the length of the average human spine is. Vaughn responded, “10 feet.” When Agharkar asked Vaughn how high the ceilings in the exam room were, Vaughn replied, “5 feet.” Vaughn himself is 5 feet, 6 inches tall.

Vaughn’s second-grade teacher described him in the petition as “a sweet boy who wanted to learn,” but who clearly needed special care.

According to the clemency petition, should Vaughn be released he’ll have a place to go. Angelo Hempstead is a childhood friend who looked out for Vaughn growing up. His family also owns a farm, restaurant and construction business in Smackover. Should Vaughn ever be released, the Hempstead family says they’ll take him in, giving him a place to live, providing him meals and finding him a job on the farm.

Michelle Tull also wrote a letter for Vaughn’s clemency application. Tull wrote that she believed Vaughn had been exploited by police and prosecutors, and that he is “also a victim in this terrible tragedy.” She added that though she’s “fairly certain” Vaughn is innocent, even if he played some role in her great-aunt’s murder, “31 years is simply long enough for a mentally disabled adult to be put in prison. My family and I want him released regardless.”

But in July, the parole board denied Vaughn’s petition. They offered no explanation. 

Charlie Vaughn remains in the same prison from which he sent that handwritten petition in 1995. He has now been incarcerated for more than 30 years, and barring clemency or a pardon from Arkansas’s governor, he’ll die in prison.